8th December 2006
Prisoner no. 202: P.K. Ssemogerere

In the fourth part of our series on politicians who have endured imprisonment on account of their political association [or suspicion], MICHAEL MUBANGIZI talks to PAUL KAWANGA SSEMOGERERE, ex-DP President General:

I got interested in joining politics when I was a student at St. Mary’s College Kisubi to be part of the independence struggle.
I was politically alert, reading newspapers, basically following what was going on.

In 1949, we had the Kabaka Buu strike of Ssemakula Mulumba against exploitation of African farmers by middlemen. Farmers could not export their coffee and cotton to Europe. The strike was the first political awakening and demand for independence as a solution to the economic exploitation. Colonialism was clearly wrong in my judgement and the demand for independence attractive.

Ssemogerere today

In 1953, Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa was arrested, deposed and deported to Britain. Then a student at Makerere University, I was hurt and deeply angered. I remember several of us did not eat that day; we refused and walked out of Mitchell Hall dinning hall.
My real political formation started in the 1940s and 1950s. I realised it was necessary for Uganda to get independence and be governed by a democratically elected government.

By the time the Democratic Party was formed in 1954, I was already a political activist of some kind, supporting independence struggle movements.

When the idea of forming a party was hatched in 1954, I was among the people who went around promoting it, selling the idea, even before the name (DP) was found. So I can call myself a promoter or one of the pioneers.

So I became part and parcel of the Democratic Party, I got known to its leadership and they also got to know me. When Ben Kiwanuka returned from Britain for his studies in 1956, I got to know him.

He was writing articles in newspapers with people like Abu Mayanja [RIP]. His election as DP president in 1958 was welcome news. I was the president of Uganda Students Association at Makerere. After Makerere in 1959, I taught at St Leo's Kyegobe. Ben put aside his legal practice for full time politics.

He persuaded me to also give up my job, join him and work full time for Uganda's independence. I resigned in 1960 and became a full time DP member and its publicity secretary.

Obote bans parties
After independence, Obote followed what other political leaders in Africa did to entrench themselves in power, by undermining, persecuting and eventually banning political parties and introducing a monolithic political system.

It was the surest way to perpetuate oneself in power without any effective challenge. On December 17 or 18, 1969, the ruling party, UPC, had its delegates’ conference graced by Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia). They were all talking about one-party state as the African model.

At that conference, a resolution was passed that Uganda becomes a one-party state. I heard the news at 4:00p.m. I was sure the next move was to effect the resolution. We spoke against it. As DP publicity secretary, I was at the frontline of fighting all these things.

The day they were closing the conference, there was an attempt on Obote’s life at Lugogo. The explanation for the attempted assassination comes from very many concerns and grievances which had accumulated.
There was a lot of discontent; in 1966 Obote had overthrown the constitution and abolished monarchies.

In 1967, Parliament had adopted a new constitution and extended its life. There was supposed to be elections in 1967 for a new parliament and government. This was rescheduled, so there was a lot of anger.
At midnight that day, there was a cabinet meeting that endorsed the ban on all opposition political parties and societies except UPC.

That is when my friends like Prof. Dani Wadada Nabudere, Natoro Masaba, Rait Amongin who had been UPC members were expelled. Nabudere had formed a society (Uganda Vietnam Solidarity Committee), which was not a political party but a political group similar to UYD (Uganda Young Democrats) and The Free Movement.

There was a new party, OMUTU-Uganda Monarchist and Traditionalist Union, formed by disgruntled Kabaka Yekka. All those were banned.
The following day was a Saturday. As I was coming to town, I bought a copy of Uganda Argus when I reached Kajjansi. It was saying that all political parties are banned.

I drove straight to Ben’s place in Lubaga. We talked about it.
Among other things, I told him that now that they had banned the Democratic Party, “you and me are going to be arrested.” I said, “They know you and I are not going to succumb, we are not going to join UPC and we are not going to remain silent.”

He eventually believed me and said he hadn’t thought it that way. We parted and I returned home in Nkumba. Along the way, I went talking to friends, preparing them for the worst.

I went to my brother’s home in Lweza. At Nkumba, near Abayita ababiri, a very close friend, now dead, came looking for me at about 4:00-5:00p.m.

He had a big Russian built car. He told me Ben had been arrested. That was the day I met him, in the morning. I told him I was not surprised, and that I was sure they were going to arrest me also. He said “yes, we believe so, that is why I have come. This car is full of fuel. I want to take you away.” He had come to hide me somewhere. He said he had foreseen the prospect of my arrest and didn’t want all of us to be arrested.

I refused. I told him let them come; he understood me. I went to my home in Nkumba. I did not fear; I was ready for it.
From the very beginning, government showed total rejection of the opposition, they called us all sorts of names, harassed us and our members. If I was avoiding trouble, I would long have left. I chose to struggle for democracy.

Police arrive

The following day was Sunday. I was preparing to go for church service at Kisubi when police arrived. After Ben’s arrest, word had gone round. They knew I was the next target. They (police) surrounded my house and went even into plantations.

I am not sure how many they were but they were over 10. They knew me and were very, very polite. I wasn’t frightened. They were surprised I did not care. I sat down with them and asked them “what do you want?”
They said “we have been asked to take you to Entebbe police station.” I asked why. They said, “well, they did not tell us why, but they said they want you.”

I said “you have come to arrest me”, they said “no.” I said, “no, you just tell me the truth because I am not a staff, I am not employed by Entebbe police station, I have no work there.” Then they said “yeah, we have come to arrest you.”

Writing a will

I said “if that is the case, allow me some time.” I was writing a few things, giving some few directives in anticipation of a possible arrest. It was kind of summary of a will … and they let me do it. I had started writing at night. They gave me plenty of time, I think half an hour.

I had no illusions that people arresting me would treat me kindly. I did not see why they would kill me immediately; they could keep me the rest of my life or even kill me afterwards. I had committed no crime. I couldn’t see myself beg or plead for mercy.

Their only objective was to effect their objective of turning this country into a one-party state. But by killing the Democratic Party, I couldn’t quit DP.

As I was writing, they searched everywhere. I remember they went to my bedroom where they found George Orwell’s book, Nineteen eighty four.
The man in charge of the group called me in the bedroom and asked, “what is this?” I told him “read it, it tells you exactly what you are doing.” He never did anything else; he spent all the time reading that book, eventually he “borrowed” it and never returned it.

I don’t know what he found, but it must have been big education for him. It was written when the dictatorship was in full swing. It talks of discrimination, the secret services, ministry of “Truth” that distorts facts (lies, spreads propaganda, controls information and re-writes history to suit interests of the regime).

It predicts a good cotton harvest, but by the time the harvest comes, it’s not that good, so they re-write and doctor the original report to make the forecast more humble and modest to say we have had a bumper crop. (It also talks about the Ministry of “Peace” that makes war, ministry of “Plenty” that administers over shortages, rations and controls supplies, and Ministry of “Love” that arrests, tortures and inflicts misery on enemies real or imagined.)

It also talks about espionage, mistrust in a family; the father, mother and children don’t trust each other. It talks of places like Owino market, where many people are disgruntled but they fear each other and can’t say anything.

Orwell wrote that such people can’t rebel, because they don’t know their power and they will never know their power until they rebel.
With so many people disgruntled, he said, they would overthrow the government if they knew their power but they can’t know because they fear each other.

When I finished writing, breakfast was served, we ate with my friends but they (police) refused to eat. When I finished, we left.
I was not handcuffed. The policemen respected and liked me. I had my shoes on, clothes. They knew I was innocent, they had to do a job but I am sure none of them believed it was the right thing.

I did not spend [much time] at Entebbe police post, before fresh orders were given to transfer me to Kampala Central Police Station (CPS) where I found Ben.

He had spent there a night with several others, like Dr. Sendegeya, J.W. Kiwanuka, Stanley Kemba and Sebastian Kibuuka, all deceased.
I was saved from going to what you may call a dungeon, the common place down there (at CPS). I was not taken there, I went upstairs.
I briefly talked to Ben; like the rest he was in good mood. We all believed it was political harassment; nobody was weeping.

We spent there about two or three hours before we were served with detention orders signed by Basil Bataringaya (former DP Secretary General), then minister of Internal Affairs to take us to Luzira.
All of us, including Ben, were charged with engaging in subversive activities, nothing more; nothing less. At about 4 or 5:00p.m. we were taken to Luzira.

It was Sunday, December 20. Again by luck or whatever it was, I wasn’t handcuffed; they handcuffed all my friends, including Ben, two by two; but when it came to me, I was the odd number. We were over 10 and were put on a truck and off to Luzira.

Life in Luzira
They took away our clothes and gave us prison khakis. We were registered and given numbers. Mine was 202. Ben’s was 201, meaning that we found there 200 detainees.
We were taken to ward nine and given very strict instructions. We were under solitary confinement; each in his own cell.

Lights were there but you had no switch in the room, they switched from outside, you wouldn’t know when. They often switched off at 10p.m.
In case of nature’s call, you had to get permission. Some guards sat in the corridors. Wherever one went out, they would be on the lookout, watching you. The door opened from outside. Very early in the morning, they opened for each one.

A guard would escort us to a bath tab to wash; one at ago, after which they took you back to the cell, locked and took another one. We were not supposed to meet in the corridors.

These instructions were observed for several months.
Our ward was sealed from the others. For several months each one of us was allowed only 30 minutes outside the cell in 24 hours. We would go out for exercises and just move around.

Pain of isolation
We were served prison food, posho (maize meal) and beans.
But the most painful thing was neither the quality of food nor the clothes you wore, but being held incommunicado, in solitary confinement.

Being alone in a very small room, forget the telephone but no radio, nothing to read, no communication with other people.
This to me was the most painful thing. It’s kind of mental torture, people even break down.

We were detained under the 1967 Public Order and Security Act under which a minister or government would detain persons without trial.
However, there was a provision for detained persons to be heard by a tribunal, appointed by government. The law set a time frame for the state to produce you before the tribunal.

Around January or February, we separately appeared before that tribunal. It had no powers of release, it only recommended to the authorities about prisoner conditions. But I am sure it realised our innocence.

By this time we were getting used. We had started defying the “don’t talk” regulation and other orders. Many prison warders had realised how innocent we all were. Some of them became very tolerant.

I remember one telling me, “I am Corporal John, I don’t expect any promotion, I am locking you but it’s just a job, one day you may by pass me in your Mercedes Benz on my bicycle in Pallisa.”
In case of defiance, they took you to a punishment cell, or the condemned section. But we were ready for anything; we saw no worse cell than our cell.

We were at the worst possible place, next to the condemned section where they were hanging people. We would hear the gallows click and something fall down in a 15-minute interval.

I heard this two times when I was there but did not witness any executions. Then we knew we would go there any time. But nothing moved me. Some people pleaded for forgiveness and yet they had committed no offence.

Akena Adoko, who was president of Uganda Law Society, came there (Luzira). Bataringaya also came. Some people pleaded with him to be released.

At the tribunal, we were charged with engaging in subversive activities. We had Ben Kiwanuka, a lawyer among us, who advised each of us to demand the particulars of subversion, which we all did. The tribunal concluded that we were right in asking for particulars.
Another tribunal was rescheduled that told us the said subversive activities.

It was alleged that I plotted to assassinate president Obote when he opened Pakwachi Bridge in September 1968.That I plotted with the military, police and prisons to overthrow the Uganda government - the time was not specified. They also said that I plotted to kill all secretary generals and district commissioners. When Obote abolished monarchies and federalism in 1966, the central government controlled local administration and the districts were run by secretary generals appointed by the central government.

Happiest day
The day they read the charges was my happiest day. I became more convinced of my innocence and rightness of my course.
I knew all the charges were fabricated. There was no truth in them. I later learnt that Amnesty International had taken me as a prisoner of conscious; arrested because of my conviction.

When we reappeared for the subsequent hearings presided over by a magistrate, the CID director was one Hassan. I had known Hassan for a long time, even before I joined politics. When he read my charges, I told him, “Hassan you know me”, he said “yes”. I asked him, “from all that you know about me, do you believe I could have committed these crimes?” He kept quite, but it hit him.

I further asked him, “did you yourself carry out investigations and found these allegations to be true?” He said “no”. Then I said, “nevertheless you are here to convince this court that I am guilty of these offences.”

I told him, if this is the case, then I am sorry for you and this country. I told him “I am prepared to stay here until I die.”
It eventually caught up with he was, he was later killed by Amin men at Mutukula. Here was somebody I had known for long, and these were serious allegations he had not investigated but was convincing the tribunal to convict me on! If he did that to the person he knew, what about the rest?

They brought in more people who were really innocent. There was UMOTU- Uganda Monarchist Traditionalist Union, formed by KY dissenters.

It had many followers in Buganda, mostly simple men like one Kintu, a Muluka (parish) chief from Busabala. He had UMOTU membership cards.

When parties were banned, they had to find out who UMOTU members were. That man Kintu was very old with no political understanding. When they arrested him, his wife almost went mad. By that time we were allowed to move out; we helped him go to the toilets. Then I said, “can this man be a threat to government?” Had government feared so much that they feared him?

Kiwanuka charged
Similar charges were brought against Ben. Other prisoners had ridiculous accusations. They were all accused of plotting but with slight variations.

There was a man, John Buu Kintu, a staunch KY member in Nateete. He was also accused of plotting to kill Obote when he was opening Pakwach bridge in September 1968.

He asked, “does the OC (officer in charge) know where I was in September 1968? Everybody was surprised when he asked. He continued, “But OC, you know I was here (Luzira).”
He was in prison during the time he (allegedly) committed the crime. He had been arrested several times.

All this was a fabrication to fulfil their objective of banning political parties. They picked up people they thought couldn’t be subdued. They picked Nabudere, he was a difficult person, Cuthbert Obwangor who was a strong UPC member in Teso, Sir William Nadiope, Prince Badru Kakungulu and Ssemakula Mulumba.

Better days

Eventually, all of us except Ben, were shifted to another ward. The conditions there were good. We were allowed a radio for the ward. Natoro Masaba operated it, switching on and off. We were kind of allowed to move, be together. We often talked about our condition and played chess. We were between 20 and 30; we would go outside and play basketball, spend the whole day outside, pray together.

Almost everybody became a friend; there was Raiti, Nabudere, Natoro Masaba. There was somebody from Arua called Ibrahim; he was from the army. When they brought him into our ward, we thought he had come to spy on us but he turned out to be a victim and a friend.
As a Catholic, I was leading the holy cross. Every religion had a chance to share.

When we started defying the “no communication ban” we had common hymns before we slept. I vividly remember Katonda gemanyii gange and Blessed Virgin Mary.

We were allowed visitors after a long time; I got about two visitors, they were all relatives. I think Ben remained excluded in the room because he was a big fish.

He had earlier made a statement that hurt Obote very much when he (Obote) castigated the situation in Northern Rhodesia and Ian Smith while opening parliament. Ben was a nationalist and outspoken. He responded as DP president, “You are criticising Northern Rhodesia, what about here where you have overthrown the constitution, imposed your own and arrested people arbitrarily?”

An estimated 600 people had been arrested between 1966 and1971.
Amin coup

We knew [about the coup] days before it happened (on January 25, 1971). Some warders, mostly Kakwa (Amin’s tribe), had been attending meetings in Bombo. There was one who was high up in the Nubian community. They were leaking developments, preparing us, telling us in a few days something was going to happen. We did not believe it.

When the coup took place, they told us that the man (Obote) was gone. We were released after a day or two after Amin had taken over; I think on January 28.

We were about 20 or 30; majority had been released. The OC told us, “you are free to go”. Given our clothes, we left behind their khakis. We found people were already coming to the gate. I have always had very good health but I must have lost some weight.

It was in the morning, around 11:00 a.m., a prison bus took us to Kololo where Amin released us officially. There was a very big crowd. We were anxious to leave Kololo. We went directly to Lubaga Cathedral for thanksgiving, then I went to my place (in Nkumba) and Ben went to Lubaga.

There was no question of being forgiven. The release was legitimising the Amin take-over. His 18 reasons included respect of human rights and release of political detainees.

(Point number one of the 18 reasons given to justify Amin’s coup was –The unwarranted detention without trial and for long periods of a large number of people, many of whom totally innocent of any charges).
Upon release, we formed an organisation of former political prisoners, the prisoners committee. It organised a demonstration in Nakivubo. It was a big procession.

We invited Amin to launch it, as guest of honour, but he sent somebody. It did not last long. Conditions deteriorated under Amin. He himself turned against parties.

I was neither tortured nor beaten. But of course there was kind of psychological torture; they shout at you, tell you to squat, give you orders. That to me is a more painful kind of torture than physical beating.

Belief in my cause kept me going. I believed I was right, they were wrong. I was convinced about my cause, I had no illusion that the government was going to release me.

Some of our members feared and joined government but the party never died. People like Mzee [Boniface] Byanyima soldiered on. This was also manifested by the many people, largely DP supporters, who thronged the Luzira gate and later Kololo to receive us. Outside Parliament, the [Anthony] Sekweyamas kept the fire burning, holding clandestine meetings in garages.

Boring Luzira

There was nothing interesting in prison. You feel your future is gone. I wasn’t married then. Eventually, I forgave [my tormentors]. I don’t hold people, particularly the present UPC leadership, guilty. I have no grudge against Cecilia Ogwal, James Rwanyarare, Prof. Rubaihayo, Patrick Mwondha. I forgave them.

When we formed the IPCF (Inter-party Consultative Forum) in 1996, I was genuine. That was total reconciliation on my part. I think that was good for the country, to put the past behind but remember it for the present.

I blame my arrest on a wider context of weaknesses after independence in many African countries. This appetite for power among our leaders is a disease.

Unfortunately, I can see the same appetite for power persisting. Efforts to perpetuate people in power by different groups. This is a pity.

It’s 40 years after independence and people talk about one-party system [forgetting what a similar decision did 40 years back]. Prison made me much stronger in my conviction. It strengthened my conviction against arbitrary arrests and detentions.

That is why when I became Minister of Internal Affairs under Tito Okello and later Yoweri Museveni; in both cases I was approached to detain people, but I refused. I said “no” to Tito, and “no” under Museveni. I am the Minister of Internal Affairs who refused to sign the civil detention order. It was still on the law books until the 1995 Constitution. Tito Okello asked me to sign it, I refused. When Museveni took over, he gave these powers; again I refused.